I have told my mother I am an atheist twice so far.
It was a realization that came quickly but it took me a while to tell her, the only person who would be affected by this discovery in any significant way. My Jewish atheist dad had never discouraged or encouraged any sort of belief, I didn’t have any seriously religious friends. But my mom had always been Catholic, and had always had some hope, I think, that I would return to the church someday.
Recently we discovered old film of her first communion. She fidgets excitedly in her white dress and huge veil, trying to stay appropriately solemn as she is escorted by my grandfather and a small boy in his best suit. As she lines up with the other children she looks for a familiar face. You can’t tell if someone called her name on the silent film, but suddenly she sees the camera. Her smile is like my smile. She was on her way to accepting the grace of God into her heart and officially becoming a member of the church, but for her and those children surrounding her, Catholicism had always been an immutable part of life.
For entertainment she read Lives of the Saints, immersing herself in the exquisite horror of every martyr’s gruesome death. She lived with constant self imposed guilt and a deep seated fear of sinning. She occasionally dreamed of being a nun.
My own faith had never been that solid to begin with. I had taken some pride in my Catholicism and in the ritual and pageantry of attending church, but my belief in God was tenuous. My parents let me decide on my own whether and how to believe, a freedom I will always be grateful for, even if it added more choices to a world that sometimes seemed overwhelmingly full of decisions to be made.
I followed her to Mass every Sunday, in keeping with a compromise made with my non-believing dad that meant I didn’t go to Sunday school but I did go to church. I was sometimes confused by phrases I heard but didn’t ask many questions, I was content to make up my own answers. I once took a pink marker and drew what I thought God looked like — a loosely human-shaped form made up of hearts.
I continued to have a vague but steady faith for a long time, that there was a benevolent someone or some being out there. For all the reasons that have been repeated before and that many continue to believe. How else to explain the beauty of late afternoon sunlight or the mystery of the Fibonacci sequence? I’m sure I was also not the first person to discover that adulthood — and the realization that adults have just as little true clarity about the world around them as children — can make it difficult to trust in anything as straightforward as a higher power. Somewhere along the line, during that progress into adulthood, I lost the ability to believe. I didn’t want to stop believing, I just discovered one day that I didn’t, like a switch had been flipped. I could still see all that beauty I had perceived in the world, but I could no longer see a pattern in its chaos.
I did not want to disappoint my mom, but also I was irrationally scared of shaking her own faith. Not that I thought she was easily shakeable, but because if anyone could do it I could. This woman who interviewed mobsters as a journalist, faced down senators as a public interest lobbyist, and taught me about feminism and to never take shit, can be hurt by me. I know too often I have hurt her, because overwhelming love makes me lash out to keep back feelings so strong I have to clench my fists and cross my arms and stay very still to keep from being consumed — or from causing pain. I worried that if we talked about it, fought about it, she might also lose her ability to believe, a switch would be turned off in her as well.
Of course that didn’t happen. My mom’s belief in a good and just God is strong and she draws comfort from it in ways I’m not sure I will ever understand.
Her dreams morphed from nun to English critic, to journalist. She left her all-girls Catholic high school and went to university in Canada, amazed to discover the male competition her nun teachers had ominously warned her about was so feeble. But her faith stayed. It evolved in some ways as she changed and grew as a person, as her politics became more and more progressive, but it has always been with her.
I had to tell her a second time that I didn’t believe in God a few months ago. I realized she had hoped that if she just didn’t mention it my faith would come back, like a wound that needed time to heal. She was quiet and then asked “do you think I’m a chump for believing?” No, I insisted and meant it, but I didn’t tell her how much I envied her faith. We all want meaning in our lives. Our art, our ancient myths, what else have they ever been but expressions of our search for why we exist and why we should go on existing? What my mother has gotten from her faith is everything I like about religion. The reassurance in feeling like not everything is within your control, the belief there is good in everyone, the community and ritual. Faith like hers, a rational faith in a kind God who provides meaning where none is apparent, is anything but chumpish.
I have found other things that make my life meaningful and continue to look for more, but faith is a powerful force and I understand my mom’s sorrow for my loss of it. I know she will continue to hope, and I may have to tell her a third time, maybe even a fourth or fifth, but that is ok.
It is not her faith that sometimes puzzles me but her church. When she’d return from a service at our conservative Catholic church, fuming because the priest’s sermon railed against abortion or gay marriage, or even refused to acknowledge the existence of the new “liberal” Pope Francis, I occasionally asked her why she stays. Why does her belief in God mean sitting and listening to a man representing an institution that seemed to be based on exclusion and disrespect of women?
Her answers never quite satisfied me but I have not pressed my questions because I don’t think there will ever be an answer I will fully understand, and my mom does not owe me one. But where I have been timid in confronting those questions, my mother herself has been willing to face them head on. She knew her answers were not enough for me and has wondered at times if they were enough for her. My mom has never denied the many problems she has with the church but she has not been able to separate her faith and the institution completely. For her that institution is both incidental and essential to her faith. Her belief in God would remain even if the Catholic Church dissolved tomorrow. But while it lasts it is a necessary component of her belief and of who she is.
I made this attempt to put my conflicted feelings about my mom’s religion into words after watching her do the same thing. For the past three years she has interviewed feminist and womanist Catholics, asking them the same questions she has struggled with, collecting their experiences and answers in a book.
In her introduction she writes about what she was seeking: “I wasn’t looking for an affirmation of faith; nor was I looking for resistance to it. I just wanted to discover whether the struggles I felt were shared by others. I was on a quest, seeking the answer to a very personal question: Was it possible to be a woman who was an independent thinker, a professional in the workplace, who firmly believed in women’s equality, and still be a Catholic?”
The scholars, activists, and survivors she interviewed had no easy answers but she was not expecting them. She figured out a long time ago how to be both a feminist and Catholic, by simply being a feminist and Catholic. What she was looking for, and what she found, was an acknowledgement of a shared struggle and the determination to not shut her eyes to the conflicts that come with that. By choosing to remain Catholic my mom has been facing her faith and her church head-on every day. It’s a choice I could not make, a choice that fewer and fewer daughters are making, but I am glad she has held on to something so important to her.
It is still hard for me to imagine any acceptable answer to questions on reconciling the Catholic faith with feminism. My mother is braver than I, though, she has found her answers but she is not afraid to keep asking questions.